The Mixed Legacy of Ed Davis

Davis is a master at crafting his own image—which makes his legacy difficult to judge.

Less than a month ago, I spent more than an hour grilling Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis for an article that appears in the October issue of Boston magazine. I went to see him, in large part, because I believed he was about to give up his job. When I interviewed Davis on August 29, we spoke a great deal about his tenure as Boston’s police commissioner from 2006 to now; as we talked, I used the term “legacy,” although Davis repeatedly denied to me that his time as commissioner was coming to an end. We now know that it is. On Sunday night, a number of news outlets reported that Davis will step down as Boston’s top cop, and Mayor Menino has reportedly indicated that he’ll leave it to his successor to name a replacement.

Davis’s legacy is decidedly mixed; below I discuss some of the department’s deficiencies that space did not allow for in the magazine. The record is less impressive than you would imagine from the stream of plaudits coming in response to the news that he will retire before year’s end. That praise is not unexpected; as I argue in the article, Davis has been masterful at crafting his own image. The timing of his departure announcement—stealing the media focus the day before the mayoral preliminary—underscores his public-relations savvy.

Davis has been able to craft his image, in large part, because he and the Boston Police Department (BPD) have improved their public relations skills while the city’s news media has shrunk. The Herald, which once covered local crime obsessively, now has no one regularly covering the department. The Globe’s Maria Cramer does excellent work, but Morrissey Boulevard, too, has reduced its coverage. The Boston Phoenix (where I used to write) has folded. It fell to community gadfly Jamahrl Crawford, agitating through his Blackstonian website, to alert the city to a recent surge in shootings.

Those shootings belie the supposed success story of Davis’s reign. Yes, crime rates are down across the board —but that’s measured from a spike in violence in 2005-’06, just before Davis came in. Even so, the declines are not much greater than national trends. Most troubling, shootings and homicides have remained far above the prevailing rates from 1996 to 2004.

Davis conceded in my interview that there have been a few bad months, but says he is confident the gun-violence numbers will subside.

Then there’s also the department’s terrible record at solving murders, a problem Davis inherited, and which has seen no significant improvement.

That homicide-clearance rate “was of great concern” to Davis when he started at the BPD, he says. “I checked around,” he tells me, “and found out there were places that do this really well, including London.” So he sent two Boston commanders off to the UK for three-week stints, to bring back and implement best practices. Those changes were put in place in late 2011— more than four years after Davis was sworn in.

Perhaps it’s too early to judge the results, but clearance rates so far are still below the national average. And we do know this: six months after those changes, a Boston double homicide that went unsolved is now being presented to a grand jury for possible charges against Aaron Hernandez. Yet it seems that more Bostonians are willing to question whether Bill Belichek should have caught Hernandez before he allegedly killed Odin Lloyd than question whether Ed Davis should have.

That homicide overhaul is one of many long-overdue changes that Davis claims to have pushed. It can be hard to say whether to credit him for forcing reforms through a notoriously change-resistant department or to criticize him for doing so little, so late.

He says officers have been retrained not to interfere with citizens who videotape the police with their phones. He says his implementation of a zero-tolerance policy for lying has “made a tremendous difference.”

And he claims to have improved an area that has long been criticized: the Internal Affairs Division’s investigations into citizen complaints against the department, for everything from excessive use of force to rude treatment.

Davis says that he has implemented a number of recommendations from the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel (COOP), a civilian review board created in 2007 to allow residents to appeal rulings of the Internal Affairs Division, and other suggestions of a special review conducted last year. (That review was criticized by the Globe, which reported that the $25,000 contract was given without a competitive bidding process to a man accused of retaliation against a subordinate with whom he admittedly had an affair while deputy chief of internal affairs at the Los Angeles Police Department.)

Yet the COOP’s most recent annual report, issued in December, showed that of 14 cases that were appealed to the panel, only five reviews found the IAD investigation to have been “fair and thorough.” That’s barely a third. That low rate suggests that more bad investigations might be found if more people were aware of the appeal process—a problem that has been raised since COOP’s launch in 2007. Yet it was wasn’t until this year that the appeal forms were made available in all BPD stations, and, incredibly, that the form was translated into languages other than English.

And complaints against the Boston Police have doubled since 2010, according to that same report. (Davis and Linskey, who are quick to cite numbers in their favor, claim that these particular figures lie: they say the increase is due to the new inclusion of certain types of complaints that had previously been logged and not investigated.)

Other longstanding IAD recommendations remain unfulfilled. In 2007, as part of the same executive order that created the COOP, a Complaint Mediation Program was outlined to allow citizens a less formal process for resolving charges that officers treated them poorly. “I’d like to do that,” Davis says, launching into an explanation of the program’s benefits. So where is it? According to Davis, implementation of the program would require union agreement, which he hopes to get later this year after the “main table” contract bargaining is completed. Sure, unions can be tough negotiators, but it’s hard to accept that as the only reason nothing has happened for six years.

And if it’s to happen now, it will have to be under someone else. Likewise, the other reforms Davis claims to have put in place must now be seen through by a new commissioner and new mayor. Credit or blame for the results will be even harder to assess. Which means he’ll likely be able to fashion his own story, putting himself in the best light. As usual.

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